Like many routes in this area, Cottage Hill Road has an identity all its own. The stretch of pavement is part of yet apart from the rest of the area’s streets and boulevards, made different by its views and frequenters. This is a gorgeous road, to be sure. But the road’s culture is especially spectacular.
It’s more than the waves all the drivers give each other while passing; or knowing, eyes closed, what vehicle is approaching by the sounds of its transmission or horn. It’s more than those mind-numbing divots no amount of fixing will fix, or that epic hill. No, the culture out here has a feeling about it that’s more than all that.
I knew about the magic of Cottage Hill Road before I lived here, of course. My Uncle Steve, who owned the property I now call home, adored the street’s culture for its plethora of flora, fauna and passersby. Steve was a student of Cottage Hill Road. And eventually, an expert. Which makes sense when you consider how much time he spent memorizing it while feeding his bird-watching obsession.
My uncle, the ninth anniversary of whose passing I and many others observed on St. Patrick’s Day last week, was resigned to life in a wheelchair in 1963 when he was 21 years old. In 1970, Steve had long-since tired of being housebound in his parents’ New Jersey home and purchased an old farmhouse on Cottage Hill Road.
At first, Steve’s autonomy up here wasn’t terribly different from back in his hometown. A motorized wheelchair would eventually change all that—and bring Steve out in ways that revived him with a sense of independence he hadn’t had since before becoming a quadriplegic.
As years progressed and the hippies he’d invited to live here with him moved on and out, Steve’s relationship to Cottage Hill Road evolved. Each new wheelchair had updated technology (and bigger battery banks), affording him further and further excursions along the North Country backroads: Kunkel, Burns, Butler. Route 37. Grass Lake. Hart Flats. But most especially Cottage Hill Road. The locals called him “Suicide Steve” for his audacious habit of idling the wheelchair in the dead center of the road while balancing binoculars atop the bridge of his nose, seeking an unobstructed view of a hawk, golden-winged warbler, or bluebird.
Besides swerving to get out of the way, it was difficult not to stop when you passed my uncle with your own vehicle, or to resist the urge to leave one’s own house so as to be grabbing the mail just as he happened to roll on by. Dozens of people around here knew him like that—as someone they could talk to, often randomly, often longer than you’d expect. Steve called them his “road friends”—and I have to believe those kinds of meetings were far different from what you might find in other parts of the world.
Uncle Steve was built for this road business. First, he had no specific agenda. Second, he loved to talk. And third, he could appreciate a good story. He adored the details of people’s lives, and relished hearing about what new things people had read or were thinking about. He loved showing people the different species of birds he was watching, and sharing all the little magical details about what made them different. The paths Steve took on his daily birding excursions lasted hours longer than their distance would suggest because he just loved being part of the scene.
There’s this thing about living here: You’ll be outside sitting on the front porch or hauling around grain for animals, and someone driving by happens to see you and decides to stop. An hour later, your kitchen’s full of people telling stories and laughing like they’ve been friends all their lives. You go jogging down the road, and catch a new view of the most unbelievable sunset. Coming home, someone rolls down a window and remarks on the color of the sky.
It’s a strange kinship among many of the people along this curvy cutout of Jefferson County. It’s one I was fortunate enough to be grandfathered into, feel grateful to contribute to, and treasure retracing, remembering, and learning about… though I will probably never fully, properly articulate it.
I remember being a little kid and cresting that first, mammoth hill and seeing Millsite Lake spread out below, sparkling and empty, everything seeming so untouched. From there, taking the bends in the road in the backseat of my parents’ car, the anticipation building as we approached that oddball place just a couple more miles up, and having to veer out of the way to avoid hitting something.
Someone. A silver ponytail. Beat-up fedora and torn plaid button-down. A pair of binoculars held up to his eyes, looking up.
As per my St. Patrick’s Day tradition since 2009, last Saturday my fiancé and I drove Uncle Steve’s favorite birding loop: up Cottage Hill Road, left on Burns, all the way out to Butler, and back around. I sprinkled some ashes, as I always do. And as it was for Steve, every person David and I passed as we made our loop waved at us. Smiled. Like they knew.
We got home more than an hour later than we should have. And then, just like always, people started to show up to say hello.
Until next time, better be.
Nicole Caldwell is an author, journalist and editor in Redwood. She is also co-founder and CEO of Better Farm, a sustainability education center, artist colony, animal sanctuary and organic farm. Learn more about Caldwell at www.nicolecaldwellwrites.org.